Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chicago (continued)

Of course Chicago is all about tall buildings. I particularly liked views that juxtaposed buildings from different periods of the city's history.

On Thursday we took a river cruise offered by the Architecture Institute, which gave us the opportunity to see some of the more significant buildings from a good vantage point. It was a grey day, threatening rain. At one point a fierce squall of wind and rain combined sent us all scurrying below decks. At least one padded seat cover flew off into the river. Fortunately, it was short-lasting, perhaps ten minutes, and we were able to emerge again. The crew provided paper towels to dry off the seats, the tour guide remained cheerful and all was well although we probably missed a little of her usual commentary.

From the level of the river we were below grade, so that they looked even taller than from street level.


The gardener in me was just as intrigued by the mature ginkgo trees planted along the riverside in front of a "green" building.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chicago (continued)

Carol, who gave me the tour of the botanical garden on my first day, works in downtown Chicago on the fortieth floor of a skscraper. We went there to meet her and to marvel at the view from her office windows.

Then she took us on a tour of some of her favourite interiors, which were truly amazing illustrations of the style and wealth of Chicago in its heyday.

Carol also took us through another area of park...

...where we admired the Victorian style bedding scheme, as well as a horse statue to which someone had added legwarmers.

We ended the tour at one of Carol's favourite installations, an array of giant legs...

where we rested our own for a while...

...before parting company with Carol and heading back to our hotel.

Chicago (continued)

Close to Millennium Park is the Art Institute of Chicago. Naturally we visited and spent the better part of a day there, including having lunch in their pleasant cafeteria, overlooking an inner courtyard.
Some of the world's best known art pieces are here, like Grant Wood's American Gothic, Edward Hopper's  Nighthawks and Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. There was also the best collection of Monet's haystack paintings we've seen, six of them on temporary loan from other institutions, all hung together so that you could see how the artist had interpreted the subject in different lights and at different times of the year. Apart from these and a few other canvases, however, we were slightly disappointed in the quality of the paintings; there were a lot of second-rate works by first-rate artists.

One object of interest to me was this clay chicken. I like its simplicity and the way the body was fashioned as a flat piece and then folded to give a realistic tail.

Another temporary exhibition was a series of baskets made by one of the last practitioners of this traditional style Japanese of basketry, an American who returned to his ancestral home to study the techniques. The baskets, all exquisite, ranged from large, powerful pieces... small, delicate ones.

Even the room they were in was beautiful, specially designed to complement the display.

Friday, July 22, 2011


The first time we headed downtown, we took the El, the elevated rail system. It's a slow train, stopping many times between Evanston and Chicago, but it's interesting for both people-watching and for views over the surrounding houses and yards.
We disembarked at one of the downtown stations. Since the El runs so frequently, every few minutes, there's never a crowd waiting for a train. It might be different in rush-hour, which we avoided.

On the way down to street level, a cute warning sign caught my eye. Unlike many railway diagrams, the message is clear enough without the text.

From underneath, the whole structure makes a great piece of sculpture...

 ...though I did wonder, as trains rattled over, whether we all got a dusting of rust in our hair.

 We had arrived at the Harold Washington Library, an imposing building of dark red brick and granite, which would look even more dramatic if the canopy over the stairs to the El station wasn't right in front of it.

The most extraordinary thing about the building was the metal sculptures on the roof. (The architectural word for them is acroteria, I have learned, and the corner ones are supposed to represent owls.)

From this point it was just a short walk to Millennium Park where the famous Cloud Gate sculpture (more popularly known as "The Bean") is the biggest attraction. 

Like everyone else, we had to photograph ourselves in its shiny surface with the Chicago skyline behind.

Just like the El, the best photo op was from right underneath. That's us, bottom centre.

The park also includes an open-air stage and adjoining bridges by Frank Gehry, who is best known for the design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I didn't care for the stage much, but liked the sinuous curves of the bridges.

Best of all, from my point of view, was the adjoining garden designed by Piet Oudolf. His sweeping style really lends itself to a large site like this.

The view to the north has the Gehry amphitheatre looming in the background.


The garden is enclosed by dark evergreens and surrounded by a watercourse. On a hot day, it's a tempting place for a couple of young lovers to sit.


Across the street from the garden was a suitable plate-glass window for another mirror shot,although we appear only as silhouettes.

Also in the vicinity is the Cultural Center, which has a dome by Tiffany...

...and the dismantled and reassembled main room of the old Chicago stock exchange, too vast for my small camera to encompass in one shot. The room is all that was preserved when the building was torn down.

We returned to Evanston on the Metra, and used it for the rest of our stay when we wanted to go downtown. The terminus is in a large glass and steel skyscraper that people enter from the street and trains enter on an elevated line through a hole in one side. Inside, it's a vast, dark cavern with about 12 platforms lo-o-ong platforms. At some of them, huge locomotives wait for passengers to board or disembark.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Chicago...Day 1

Everyone should go to Chicago at least once in a lifetime. It's taken us a long time, but finally the opportunity came along and we seized it. I looked at accommodation on-line and was daunted by the prices of hotels right downtown. There were a few bed-and-breakfasts that looked attractive, but those I checked were fully booked already.
Our fallback strategy was to stay outside the city and use public transit to go in and out. We discovered the Margarita European Inn in Evanston, and it turned out to be a good choice.

Evanston itself is an attractive university town (Northwestern University is there) with wide tree-lined streets, and has access to downtown by the famous Chicago EL as well as the faster Metra. We sampled both during the week; the Metra is more comfortable, but the EL runs much more often.

The Margarita is a former women's residence with an assortment of rooms to suit all budgets, from self-contained suites to simple rooms which share the communal bathrooms on each floor. We had a mini-suite that was quiet, spacious and exceptionally comfortable. This is not a place for those who want the typical sterile U.S.chain hotel room, but anyone who has enjoyed the atmosphere and character of old buildings in, say, Paris would appreciate it. The hotel is furnished with an assortment of vintage and faux-antique pieces; the management is friendly and helpful; the guests are everything from charming, young would-be students to eccentric, elderly midwesterners.
 I took one photo of our very pretty room:

More are on their website:<>
Michael was delayed in Quebec so on my first day, I stayed with Carol, our neighbour's sister, who took me to the Chicago Botanic Garden not far away. It's a large garden, in the grand park style with long vistas and beautiful trees.

I was impressed by the Belgian fence at the entrance...

... and the green roof on their new ecology centre.

That grey area around the perimeter is a band of solar panels that supply the buildings electricity needs.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Phoenix, Arizona

Our flight back to Vancouver had the drawback of an 8-hour layover in Phoenix. We were travelling with carry-on luggage only and would like to have left our bags at the airport and taken public transport around the city, but of course airports no longer have luggage lockers for security reasons. The solution was to hire a car for the day, and we were glad we did since Phoenix was not a place to get around in by other means: there are such huge distances between its various attractions.

Phoenix art museum was largely closed for renovations, but was still charging full price admission to see a much diminished part of its collection. We decided against supporting such shameless money-grabbing and went instead to the Heard Museum of American Indian Art. Before touring its exhibitions we paused for lunch in its shady courtyard.

The best part of the day however, was our late afternoon visit to the Desert Botanical Garden, where we saw some spectacular cacti among equally spectacular scenery.

Even the entrance to the site is dramatic, thanks to Dale Chihuly's amazing glass sculptures.